Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are widespread, a global problem and a significant management challenge. We’re addressing the challenges.

The challenge

A highly mobile contaminant

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have a wide range of applications, for example in firefighting foams. However, they persist and bioaccumulate in the environment, and have impacted vast volumes of soil, surface water and groundwater. There is significant community concern, nationally and internationally, about the potential impact of PFAS on human and ecosystem health.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) were first developed in the 1940s and were found to have widespread applications in industry due to their unique chemistry.

We need to know much more about the leachability, mobility, bioavailability, toxicology and treatability of PFAS in soils, particularly a better understanding of the:

  • transformation and transport of PFAS in soil, groundwater, sediments and biota
  • bioaccumulation mechanisms of PFAS and toxicity risks, and
  • destruction and containment of PFAS.

There are strong efforts in Australia to establish consistent national approaches.

Our response

Prioritising PFAS issues and R&D

CSIRO are liaising across industry, government agencies, Defence and regions to clarify issues for prioritisation and action.

As advisor and reviewer of PFAS assessment criteria, CSIRO has been working to identify gaps in risk assessments and key eco-toxicological data.

CSIRO has harnessed its extensive soil and groundwater remediation science expertise to help frame future treatment and remediation technologies for PFAS.

Seeking a deeper understanding of PFAS behaviour and its treatment

Conceptual figure of the possible sorption mechanisms of PFASs to soils or sediments. From the paper in Science of the Total Environment.

CSIRO is undertaking extensive studies across a range of soil types to quantify partitioning and leachability of PFAS.

We've shown that natural organic carbon in soils only explained 10 per cent of the sorption behaviour of PFAS, based on global literature. Organic and mineral phases in soil, jointly with pH and clay, should be taken into account for accurate prediction of sorption of PFAS in soils and sediments.

We have tested the effectiveness of encapsulation and destructive technologies.  Our approach is to validate novel approaches at batch, bench reactor or soil column scale – before demonstration at field scale.

The results

Improving risk assessment

CSIRO has altered the prevailing view on PFAS mobility. Factors governing the mobility of PFAS as a key measure of risk and exposure are better defined.

Modelling and development of rapid measurement of such factors is underway.

Necessary ecotoxicology R&D to address key knowledge gaps are being designed.

Communication across agencies and consultants defining risk has been a priority.

Testing novel approaches

We are actively developing sensors and online monitoring of key organic compounds and markers such as PFAS.

Pilot scale treatment of contamination.

We have tested and trialed a range of remediation and treatment options. We have:

  • invented Rembind®, marketed by Ziltek – which is a strong sorbent for PFAS with limited leachability
  • developed, tested and optimised bioprocesses for remediating sites with organic and inorganic contaminants
  • undertaken trials of high powered ultrasonic techniques at laboratory scale to destroy PFAS in slurry reactor mode. Trials have shown that this technique has the potential to achieve high levels of destruction of PFAS in water
  • encapsulated complex organic and inorganic mixtures in hydrotalcite matrices, and in biochar to clean water
  • devised novel techniques for delivery of amendments into subsurface environments and monitoring to assess the progress of treatment and remedial trials.

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